WE ALL BRACE for the start of a war but some in our community more than others. In Alexandria, a mother sits by the budding daffodils reading the latest letter from her son, a soldier with the 101st Airborne. In it, she reports with relief, he still sounds more bored than scared; but then, the letter is a week old. Tamara Medeiros, mother of triplets plus one, is worried she has just taken the last domestic call from her husband, a reservist trained to run prisoner-of-war camps who is about to ship out. At best guess, about 150 active-duty soldiers have been deployed from this region (the military doesn't release active-duty numbers) and about 5,000 reservists. For their families left behind -- parents and spouses, children, friends -- war is a different kind of hell. Robert Killebrew is a retired colonel living in southern Virginia. His daughter is on a training mission in Korea, her husband is in Qatar; the children are with the grandparents. "I am losing more sleep over this war," Mr. Killebrew says. "The reason, I suspect, is that we all sensed that Desert Storm, big as it was, was going to be limitable. I do not have that sense here." Then in the next breath he adds, "But please don't write the drippy 'Isn't this horrible?' We are soldiers, professionals. Even the kids understand, we do this for our country."

As the active-duty forces have shrunk during the past decade, the military has come to depend on the reserves to a degree few expected. In peacetime you know them as the UPS driver, the fellow who fixed your roof, the pilot; one works here at The Post. They don't live on a base, their families don't see them leave the house in uniform each morning. They've always known they could go to war someday, but for many that knowledge tended to be theoretical. Some have gone 20 years fulfilling their reserve obligations by training for two weeks a year and a few weekends; now suddenly they are being deployed overseas for up to two years at a time.

If they are lucky, their employers will make up the difference in their salaries while they're away. In our area, the D.C. and Howard County governments, the National Park Service, Verizon, IBM, Wal-Mart and Safeway are some of the employers on what the Reserve Officers Association calls the "Do the Right Thing" list. As of 1994, all employers are required to hold open reservists' jobs. The self-employed, such as Sgt. Mark Brinker of Howard County, have no such cushion. In the military, his specialty is peacekeeping, in high demand lately; in civilian life, he builds decks, and he has missed the past two busy seasons, making it home for only about five slow winter months since September 2001. The oldest of his three sons was a model student but now forgets to do his assignments, or does them and forgets to turn them in, reports Mr. Brinker's wife, Lynn. With his reserve pay, Mr. Brinker will take a 70 percent cut in income. Now Mrs. Brinker finds herself yelling about the smallest things.

To these reservists and their families -- who have no automatic support system, no natural empathy from the next-door neighbor on base -- we especially owe our wishes of good luck and courage.